WMU News

Disability legislation spurs development of new profession

January 13, 1998

KALAMAZOO -- Opportunities opened up by the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act have spurred Western Michigan University researchers to develop standards and training materials for a new category of professionals who will help people with disabilities learn to travel independently.

A $149,969 grant from the Easter Seal Society of America in Washington, D.C., has been awarded to Dr. William R. Wiener, chairperson of WMU's Department of Blind Rehabilitation. The funds will support the first year of a two-year project to design curriculum and certification standards for a new classification of health care worker called travel specialists.

"What we're really doing is launching a new profession," Wiener says. Those trained for the new profession would work with persons with such disabilities as mental retardation, deafness, cerebral palsy and brain and spinal cord injury.

The need for such professionals is just blossoming now, Wiener says, because of the ADA. After seven years of compliance with that federal legislation, it has become easier for people with disabilities to use public transportation. Curb cuts, handicap accessible entrances, lifts and a host of other devices and services have become commonplace.

"The ability to travel independently is the key to independence," Wiener says. "The accommodations are there and people with disabilities are interested in travel. They need instructors to work with them. It's an idea that's time has come."

Working with Wiener to develop the courses and certification standards for the new profession is a steering committee comprised of representatives from agencies with a deep interest in the topic. The committee's roster, he says, "reads like a 'Who's Who' of professionals who work with people with disabilities."

Wiener notes WMU's history of being among the first universities in the world to train professionals to teach people with vision disabilities to travel. He says that history puts the University in a good position to help launch a new profession to serve the needs of people with other disabilities as well. WMU's Department of Blind Rehabilitation, begun in 1961, is the second oldest and the largest such university program in the nation.

"We have an analogous situation in the area of mobility for disabilities other than blindness," he says. "There are few instructors to teach people with such disabilities to travel independently, and no college-level programs to train these instructors. We are trying to replicate what we did in the 1960s with blindness."

Wiener says many of the skills needed for independent travel are common to people with differing disabilities. Those skills include the ability to interact with the general public, good problem-solving skills, the ability to solicit aid when needed and the ability to cognitively map out a trip in advance. The major differences, he says, arise from the technical skills that help people adjust to travel with a particular disability. Those can range from using a cane to search out level ground to using a wheelchair lift on public transportation.

"A lot of our existing courses in blind rehabilitation could be modified or broadened to form a core of courses to train travel specialists who can serve those with other disabilities," he notes.

The Easter Seal grant money is being used to develop a detailed analysis of the job a travel specialist would do and, from that analysis, design and test a set of formal competencies. Once a thoroughly validated set of competencies is set, Wiener and his colleagues will develop a curriculum to train specialists in those areas.

After the certification standards and curriculum are developed, the material will be made available to colleges and universities wishing to offer degrees in independent travel to serve people with disabilities other than blindness. Wiener notes that the material will be of particular interest to the 18 U.S. universities that currently train orientation and mobility specialists to work with people who are blind. Those universities could offer dual preparation of specialists to serve people with all disabilities.

Wiener says the new professionals will have great potential to serve a variety of people. He foresees travel specialists finding employment with public school districts and with adult agencies and adult education programs that work with persons with disabilities.

Wiener says WMU would make an ideal location to launch the training of professionals in the new specialty. While the two-year development project is under way, he says, the University will be seeking start-up funds to add course work in the new specialty to its academic program.

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